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ikigai

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Ikigai (n) - a reason for being; the thing that gets you up in the morning

 

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1.

Graduate from the Academy top of your class - try to ignore the whispered comparisons with your brother. Still get put on a genin team with the absolute bottom of your class and a pink-haired fangirl. Wonder why fate continues to spit on you and if, impossibly, somewhere that brother is laughing at you.

 

2.

Get assigned a sensei you’re immediately wary of, even though he’s apparently a trainer of elite ninja and has a lot of respect for your lineage. He introduces himself as Ebisu, pushing his glasses onto the bridge of his nose, and you’re almost positive you saw him outside the women’s bath house yesterday.

(Your brother is definitely laughing.)

Ebisu calls you a prodigy, says that you’ll become a great shinobi one day. He calls Nartuo worthless and you don’t know why, but that irks something inside of you.

 

3.

Go on a bunch of ridiculous D-Rank missions, including recovering one woman’s missing cat five times , and feel like you’re going crazy. Throw your weight in behind Dead Last to get a better mission out of the Hokage: an escort to Wave Country. The guy is weird and cagey, and it still seems boring, but at least it will get you away from Konoha and all the ghosts lurking in the Uchiha compound. The ones you refuse to acknowledge but always see out of the corner of your eye, drifting from room to room.

(At night, you hear them wailing. They sound like your mother.)

 

4.

Realize that Weird Guy lied to you and this is not a boring mission at all. In fact, you’re so out of your league, it’s almost laughable.

Ebisu holds his own until a guy with a massive sword shows up and then it spirals downhill until you stand, frozen, and watch your sensei get run clean through by that massive sword. Sakura and Naruto scream, but you know Ebisu is already dead and panicking is pointless.

You have bigger things to worry about: like the fact that Massive Sword Guy’s attention is now on the three of you.

 

5.

Try to hold your own like Ebisu-sensei and nearly get killed in the process, even if you do manage to grievously injure Massive Sword’s equally weird sidekick.

(Oh and awaken your Sharingan trying to save Dead Last. Perfect timing, as usual.)

 

6.

Get thrown in a prison cell by Massive Sword Guy, who is apparently in the employ of a thug named Gatou, who apparently wants to hold you, Sakura, and Naruto for ransom. Why Konoha would pay for three genin, you have no idea, until you realize that Gatou knows you’re an Uchiha. And what Konoha would pay for the last of the Uchiha clan is far different.

 

7.

Contemplate how long it will take Naruto and Sakura to wake up, how long it will take your broken arm to heal, and how long it will be before Konoha decides to respond to Gatou’s demands. Wonder, with a small pinprick of worry, if you’ll end up dying in a dank prison cell in the depths of Wave Country. Which would be a level of failure you weren’t anticipating.

Bite back the scream of helpless rage building in your throat.

 

8.

Have your contemplative seething interrupted by another person tossed unceremoniously into your cell. Nartuo and Sakura still haven’t woken up (weaklings) , so you’re left to inch closer to what might be a corpse on your own. It’s a man - tall and slender with messy silver hair. A bloodstained mask covers the lower half of his face and the rips in his clothes reveal deep red cuts across his pale skin.

You consider poking him, but a breath rattles noisily through his lungs, turning into a rasping cough after it leaves his mouth - so not dead, then.

The man rolls over and levers himself up on one shaky elbow. He’s got a bandana covering his left eye, as well, and ominous glowing manacles around his wrists, connected to each other by a thick chain. He blinks sluggishly at you.

“Are you real?”

Now you blink. “Yes?”

“You don’t sound too sure,” he wheezes, then shakes his head and pushes himself into a full sitting position. “Never mind. You wouldn’t be what I hallucinate.” He seems incredibly calm for someone who’s clearly been tortured. A shinobi? Not Konoha - maybe Kiri? “What’s your name, kid?”

There seems to be no harm in it, even if “kid” is irritating. “Sasuke.”

Potential Shinobi hums in acknowledgement. “Kakashi.”

So. Weird name for a weird person.

Kakashi breaks into a coughing fit immediately after introducing himself - violent enough to wrack through his whole upper body. When it finally abates, there are fresh stains on his mask.

“Are you dying?”

He sighs. “Probably.” A rattle of his chains. “My partner’s late.” A low, croaking sound that you belatedly realize is meant to be laughter. “As usual. At least this will piss him off.” He tilts his head. “Why are you brats locked up in here?”

“Brat” now, huh? Bastard. “Ransom.”

He nods, surprisingly unsurprised - though maybe this is Gatou’s usual MO. “Well, if I live long enough for my partner to show up, I’ll make sure you get out. Otherwise, he’ll kill everyone avenging my death and then let you out himself. He’s caring that way.”

You wonder, somewhat detached, if torture has driven Kakashi insane.

He coughs again, hunching over. “Damn suppressors.”

Ah, so that’s why the manacles are glowing. Definitely a shinobi, then, if they’ve bothered dampening his chakra.

“I’m gonna pass out for a little bit, okay?” he says, still calm.

Before you can reply, he’s gone - slumping against the wall in a heap.

You go back to your contemplative seething.

 

9.

Fall asleep somehow and wake to what sounds like a small war taking place outside. Naruto and Sakura are finally conscious, though too battered to do anything but listen with wide eyes. You can’t move much, either, and the pain in your arm is so intense that your vision nearly whites out when you try to shift it.

Outside, the screams reach a worrying crescendo and then one of Gatou’s thugs gets thrown through the prison wall so hard the stone crumples like paper.

“Ah,” Kakashi mutters from the corner. “Obito.”

 

10.

Meet Obito when he steps through what used to be a stone wall. Recoil at the killing intent roiling off him in waves and the blood red glow of his right eye.

(A familiar red...)

Kakashi waves a manacled hand. “You’re late.”

The red fades in a blink, like a trick of the light, and the killing intent vanishes just as quick. “Sorry, a black cat crossed my path, so I had to take the long way. And then I got lost.”

You wonder, suddenly, if you have actually died and this is fate’s joking version of an afterlife: here, you have failed so pathetically at your destiny that we are going to subject you to the whims of the insane for the rest of time.

“W-who are you?” Sakura stammers. Naruto, by some miracle, has been rendered speechless.

“Obito,” Obito says like that explains everything, crouching in front of the three of you. He’s got scarring on the right side of his face and a cloth covering his left eye, just like Kakashi. Some weird fashion statement in whatever village they’re from? He’s dressed like a shinobi but you can’t see a forehead protector.

When he smiles, the scars crinkle and deepen, but it isn’t an unpleasant expression on his surprisingly young face.

“Let’s get you kids out of here.”

“Gatou?” Kakashi asks.

“Dead,” Obito says, moving over to break the manacles like they’re paper, too.

Kakashi coughs, rubbing at his wrists. “Zabuza?”

“Gone.” Obito doesn’t sound sorry about this at all.

And Kakashi just nods. Guess Massive Sword wasn’t their priority, whoever they are.

Obito returns to you, going for Naruto first, who definitely looks several steps closer to death than you or Sakura - though not nearly as close as Kakashi. He still hasn’t started yelling. Instead, there’s a weird expression on his face. Almost … thoughtful.

“Oi, Obito?” Obito arches an eyebrow. “Did Haku ... make it?”

Wait … Ice Mirrors? Naruto is worried about Ice Mirrors ? You still have needles in your arms from that bastard…

“Last I saw,” Obito says and Naruto slumps in relief.

“That’s ... good.”

And then he passes out again. Great.

 

11.

Get carried from the wreckage of the prison, through the wreckage of Gatou’s compound, and marvel at the fact that Obito apparently caused so much carnage all by himself. Start to slip into unconsciousness when Obito sets you in the grass, beneath a towering tree.

Hear, right before you follow Naruto into oblivion: “Man, I can’t believe you got caught, Bakakashi.”

And: “Shut up, moron.”

 

12.

Wake up again. This time in a bed, in a familiar house. Guess Tazuna is feeling guilty for this shitshow of a mission (either that or Obito threatened him, which actually seems more likely) and has decided to be hospitable. You still can’t move much, and there are bandages everywhere, but you didn’t die in a prison cell in Wave Country so you’ll take it.

Obito is also sitting by your bed, staring at you. Like he’s seen a ghost.

There is still something familiar about him. Maybe it’s the dark hair - the same shade as your own. Or the sharpness of his features, evident in spite of all the scarring. You feel like you should know him and it’s maddening.

“What do you want?”

Obito frowns. “Kakashi said your name is Sasuke…?”

You wish, suddenly, that you weren’t laid out flat in a bed and wrapped up like a mummy. At least then you might be somewhat intimidating when you furrow your brow and snap, “yes, Uchiha Sasuke. What do you want?”

Obito recoils, but it’s from the name that just left your mouth and not the glare you’re leveling at him. “Right. I’m, uh, just making sure you’re okay.”

He’s a terrible liar- rubbing the back of his head and looking so sheepish you want to reach out and shake him. So many people have lied to you and you’re sick of it.

“I’m fine.”

He nods and stands, all fluid grace. “I should let you rest, then.”

“What village are you from?” It’s been a question burning in the back of your mind since he stepped through that wall.

He winces and doesn’t look at you when he says, “I don’t have one.”

He leaves before you can ask him what the hell that means.

 

13.

Be informed, via Tazuna, that Konoha is overloaded at the moment and will send an escort to take you back to the village as soon as possible. Expect a delay of at least two weeks, though, which will also give any injuries time to heal.

You’re so fucking sick of Wave Country , but there’s nothing for it. You’ve still got a broken arm and five cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder - not to mention dozens of punctures from Ice Mirror’s fucking needles. Sakura’s sporting a badly sprained wrist and several deep cuts. Dead Last has a list of wounds longer than you can remember, but seems to be healing at annoying speed.

Kakashi … not so much. He can sit up on his own now, and stay conscious for more than five minutes at a time, but it’s going to be a while before he can travel. Which means that Obito’s still hanging around, being mysterious and irritating.

You still feel like you should know him. Feel like even his name is familiar. There is a solution to a puzzle staring you right in the face, but you can’t get the pieces to fit.

 

14.

Realize the answer two nights later, on the cusp of sleep, and jolt upright in bed so fast you lose your breath from the strain on your ribs.

You know his name, because Itachi told it to you, years ago. He seems familiar because he’s an Uchiha.

(You’re … not alone?)

 

15.

Confront Obito the following morning and watch him rub the back of his neck again, sheepish expression in full force.

“Yeah,” he says, though, instead of trying to deny it. “Uchiha Obito, nice to meet you.”

It’s strange, hearing a confirmation of your suspicions. A part of you still thought you were building sandcastles in the air, connecting dots that don’t exist in pathetic desperation. Weak, just like Itachi said you were…

“I thought … you were dead?”

Obito shrugs. “I might as well have been. I haven’t been an Uchiha in a long time, kid.”

“You said … you don’t have a village.”

“I haven’t been a Konoha shinobi in a long time, either.”

Does he know? It hits you, then, that he might not. If he’s been out here, doing fuck knows what in Wave Country, then maybe he missed the news of the massacre. Maybe he doesn’t realize that it’s just you and him and Itachi now - the only Uchiha left in the world.

Because if he did know, then … surely he would have come back?

Unless he couldn’t, a voice whispers.

His name wasn’t in any clan records and you mother … your mother berated Itachi, when she heard Obito’s name, so something must have happened to make the man in front of you a disgrace.

There are too many questions, all pressing against the back your teeth, tangling up with each other. Your world is shifting on a new, terrifying fulcrum and you can’t find your balance.

You hate this uncertainty. Hate even more that Obito hasn’t said anything else.

“You know?”

(You’re still afraid of the answer.)

He nods. “About Itachi? Yeah.”

“Then why…?”

“It’s complicated.”

Rage swells, more familiar and almost comforting. “Explain, then.”

A weighted, awful silence. Then Obito shakes his head. “I can’t.”

You want to hit him. You want to scream until the walls shake. You’re furious at yourself for this weakness - for the tears welling in your eyes and the tremble in your hands - and you’re furious at Obito for his stubborn vagueness and you’re always, always furious at Itachi for the ruin he’s made of everything.

(Of you.)

“I’m sorry,” Obito says, like that’s supposed to be enough. “Trust me, kid. You’re better off without me.”

You’re the only one who understands, you don’t say. Because he doesn’t. He wasn’t there, he didn’t see it. It wasn’t his parents lying in pools of their own blood and it wasn’t his brother who…

But when he stepped through that stone wall, his eye was red and now you know what that means. He has power, lots of it, and you need power to …

“Train me.” It comes out more of a plea than a demand. “You have the Sharingan, too. You can-”

“No.” You were expecting it, but it still cuts like one of Ice Mirror’s needles. As does the hard expression on Obito’s face.

Still, you’re not giving up yet.

 

16.

Heal enough to move around, but still feel ready to die of boredom. The sea is boring and the forest is boring and the house is extremely boring. The only distraction you have is Naruto and your desire to kill him, steadily growing in proportion to his increased levels of volume and agitation. He’s as bored as you, but knows nothing of containing himself. So he babbles and paces and asks you a million pointless questions like: “hey, Sasuke-teme, why do you think Zabuza and Haku were working for that asshole?” and “when do you think Konoha’s going to come get us?” and “who do you think our new sensei is gonna be?”

You tell him to shut up, but it’s like throwing a pebble at a mountain. The words just bounce right off.

Finally, at least, he turns his attention to Obito. There are the expected questions (“where are you from? Are you a shinobi? How’d you take out all those guys by yourself? Did you take out all those guys by yourself?”) followed by the expected bragging (“you should have seen us against Zabuza and Haku!” “Oi, I’m going to be Hokage one day, you know! Konoha will finally see me for the great ninja that I am!”), and it’s a pointless waste of energy to correct him, but Sakura doesn’t seem to agree.

“Idiot!” She backs this up with a smack to the side of Naruto’s head. “Shut up! You barely graduated! You can’t even make a bunshin.

That gets Obito’s attention. “What? But you said you’ve mastered kage bunshin?”

“I have!” Naruto insists, almost petulant.

“But … you can’t make a regular clone?”

Naruto deflates with a shake of his head. And Obito is definitely interested now. “Show me.”

You’re … more interested than you want to admit. It’s another puzzle with pieces missing: why Naruto fails so miserably at making one clone while effortlessly creating dozens at a time.

Naruto hesitates, but only for a moment. Then, with a deep breath, he gets up from his sitting position and goes to stand in the middle of the bedroom you’re all occupying. Another deep breath before he makes the correct seal, shouts “ bunshin no jutsu!,” and, with a poof of smoke, summons a clone. Well, sort of a clone. It’s pathetic and washed out and unable to even stand upright, sagging on the floor in an ungainly heap like it doesn’t have bones in its body.

It’s probably the worst one you’ve ever seen.

Sakura shakes her head, disgust written all over her face, while Naruto glares at the floor with a mixture of shame and defiance. You’re not sure what you’re expecting from Obito (maybe more disappointment and disbelief, like the Academy instructors always showed), but it isn’t for him to huff and say, “well that make sense.”

Naruto jerks his head up. “W-what?”

“Kid,” Obito says, wry, “do you realize how much chakra you’re putting into that thing?”

Naruto frowns. “What?”

A strange expression crosses Obito’s face. “Kid, do you know how much chakra you have ?”

“No?”

Obito takes this in. Mutters “what the hell happened to the Academy?” as he stands up. Something is happening. Another fulcrum, potentially. You sit up a little straighter and stubbornly ignore the ache in your ribs.

“Well you have a shit ton, okay?” Obito says, crouching in front Naruto. “Way more than the average shinobi. Probably way more than even above average shinobi. And you’re channeling way too much into that poor clone. Try using a quarter of what you were before.”

Naruto stares up at him with wide, stunned eyes. Forty minutes later, he’s making an almost perfect bunshin.

You struggle to wrap your head around it.

Obito realized something in five minutes that numerous Academy teachers and Ebisu never got in five years. And Naruto…. You almost can’t look at him. At the hope blazing like a sun in his eyes. You can feel it, too, sitting in your chest. Can almost hear what Naruto is thinking: here is someone who sees me.

Only, Obito isn’t looking at you. Obito’s been avoiding it since your talk three days ago.

That’s fine, you think, resting back on that familiar rage. You’ll make him.

 

17.

Watch as, a week later, Kakashi finally fully rejoins the land of the living. Watch the naked, painful relief on Obito’s face as he squeezes Kakashi’s shoulder and tells him never to pull a stunt like that again. Realize, with a sinking sensation in your chest, that they’ll be leaving now.

Obito’s been showing you all some techniques in your endless down time: how to channel chakra into the soles of your feet, more basic taijutsu, a useful earth wall for blocking even high-powered attacks. You’ve probably learned more from him in a week than Ebisu-sensei taught all of you in three months. And you silently agreed, both you and him, not to bring up the Uchiha and the Sharingan.

It seemed like it was working...

But Obito is still packing his bags.

“Do you really have to go?” Naruto asks with the dismay you’re not weak enough to voice.

“Yep.” Obito says, trying to cram several things into his pack at once. “Sorry, kid.”

“But…” Naruto says, tears coating the word.

Obito looks up and sees them. His expression softens. “Hey … Kakashi. We should take these three back.”

Kakashi blinks, obviously thrown off guard. “To Konoha?”

“No,” Obito huffs. “To Kiri.”

If Kakashi were anyone other than Kakashi, you think he’d be rolling his eyes. Eye. As it is, he just sighs. “Well in case you forgot, baka, Konoha is in The Land of Fire. And the ban is still in place.”

Ban?

“I didn’t forget, bastard,” Obito fires right back. “But who knows when they’re going to send an escort and we can’t just leave them here alone.”

“Why not?”

“Hey!” Naruto yells. Kakashi ignores him.

Obito dumps a handful of scrolls into his pack. Somehow, they fit. “Because we can’t.”

“Obito…”

“We’ll drop them off at the border, okay? We can have Tazuna send word that we’re coming, don’t attack, blah, blah, blah.”

Kakashi sighs again - a distinctively resigned sound now. “Maa, fine. But if I get executed over this, baka, I’m never going to forgive you.”

Naruto cheers, jumping to his feet, and even Sakura looks excited. You don’t react, but in your chest, hope blooms - fragile and stubborn and undying.

 

18.

Spend a week on the road back to The Land of Fire, secretly grateful for the slow pace Kakashi sets because your ribs and arm still ache. Listen to Naruto try again and again and again and again to convince Obito to train him - train all of you. Listen as Obito says no again and again and again and again and Kakashi says nothing. (He’s watching, though, always - and you don’t know what that means yet.)

Make no arguments of your own because you refuse to beg, even as you feel your last potential shot at the power you need slipping through your fingers. It’s fine, you tell yourself, you’ll get it another way. It’s your destiny, your ambition, your fate. No matter what it takes, no matter what it costs, Itachi will die and it will be your hand on the blade.

(Kakashi watches you, more than anyone else. You wonder what he sees. You’re not sure you want to know.)

 

19.

Get woken up in the middle of the night by Dead Last and dragged away from the camp. It’s two days to the border and tensions have been running high. Kakashi and Obito are on edge, Sakura is exhausted and frustrated by the rough living, Naruto is desperate, and you’re … something. You refuse to try to untangle the knot inside of you.

“What do you want, dobe?” You hiss at Naruto when he finally stops in a secluded clearing, wrenching your arm out of his grip.

He looks uncharacteristically solemn. Or maybe that’s just the moonlight and overhead branches casting strange shadows across his face. “I have a plan,” he says, and actually, maybe you’re dreaming.

“For what?”

“To get Obito-san and Kakashi-san to teach us,” Naruto huffs, impatient. It’s also weird, hearing him use honorifics. You’re pretty sure you’ve heard him call the hokage “old man” before.

You arch an eyebrow, throwing the impatience right back at him.

“We need to talk to Hokage-jiji. He could make them train us!”

It’s not a terrible plan, you have to admit. But, “what makes you think he’ll listen to us, dobe?”

Naruto shrugs. “You’re the last Uchiha. And Obito’s an Uchiha, right? Besides …” he hesitates and then blurts, “otherjounindon’twanttotrainme.”

You untangle that word jumble after a moment and … what? “Why?”

Naruto shrugs. “I’m pretty sure Ebisu-sensei only agreed because it meant he got to train you. I think people are afraid of me. Mizuki … he called me a monster.” Naruto stares down at his hands, an odd, faraway expression on his face. “People are always afraid. Or angry. But Obito-san isn’t. Neither is Kakashi-san. So … we have to try, right? I know you want them to train you, too.”

Naruto, you realize with a strange twist in your stomach, sees a lot more than you’ve given him credit for.

“Okay,” you say, surprising yourself. “We’ll talk to the hokage.”

Naruto grins.

 

20.

Get stopped by a patrol at the border of The Land of Fire. ANBU - armed with an impressive overabundance of weapons. Kakashi and Obito bristle and the tension in the air is so thick you can almost sink your teeth into it.

It’s Kakashi who talks first. “We’re just returning these genin.” He nods at the three of you. “Their sensei was killed on a mission to Wave.”

“The hokage requests your presence,” the cat ANBU says.

“Requests?” Obito echoes. “Then tell him we respectfully decline.”

Crow immediately reaches for his weapon. So does Cat.

“Ah,” Obito says. His grin is as sharp as the blade in Crow’s hand. “Not a request, then. You should have said.”

“Obito…” Kakashi murmurs in warning, even as his own hand twitches towards his kunai pouch.

They can take four ANBU, you’re sure of it. Probably without breaking a sweat. You knew, logically, that they were dangerous, but now is the first time since Gatou’s compound that you can actually feel it.

Judging by the ANBU’s readied stances, they can, too.

“Please come with us,” Rat says, grim. “We don’t want trouble.”

“Then tell the hokage we’ll talk to him out here,” Obito answers. “You’re not going to parade us through Konoha.”

“Why you-” Cat starts, but Dog cuts her off.

“Fine.” He gestures to Crow. “Bring a message to Hokage-sama.” He points to you, Naruto, and Sakura. “And bring these genin back to the village.”

Crow nods, waves at you. “Come with me.”

You don’t want to leave. You’re tired of secrets, of being kept in the dark (how dangerous are they, that ANBU would bend to their demands?), but you have little choice.

You follow Crow.

 

21.

Stop beneath the gates of Konoha. They feel foreign now. Three weeks and so much has changed.

Is still changing.

“Please return home,” Crow says. “Hokage-sama will summon you for debriefing.”

And then she’s gone, darting to the rooftops in a white and black blur.

Return home. Ha.

 

22.

Sneak right back out through the gates with Dead Last and Sakura in tow. You would have preferred to ditch them, but they’re being quiet, at least.

Everyone is where you left them: the ANBU and Obito and Kakashi, all glaring at each other in the middle of the clearing. You find some underbrush to conceal yourself in and gesture for Sakura and Naruto to get down as well. For once in his life, Naruto is silent as he lowers himself next to you, staring through the leaves with narrowed eyes.

For a moment, Kakashi’s gaze flickers toward your hiding place, but he focuses quickly back on the ANBU. He knows you’re here, which means Obito probably does, too, but as long as they don’t do anything about it, you’re not going to move.

Fortunately, you don’t have to wait long for Sandaime to arrive, escorted by Crow and two new ANBU: Snake and Tiger. Obito and Kakashi stiffen, surprise flashing briefly across their faces - there and gone in a blink.

Obito bows, sardonic smile firmly back in place. “Hokage-sama, what a pleasant surprise.”

Sandaime grunts. “You asked me here, didn’t you?”

Obito shrugs and shoves his hands in his pockets, deliberately casual. “You’re the one who requested a meeting. We were happy to drop the brats off and leave.”

Naruto makes a low sound in response to ‘brats.’ You elbow him, even though your eye is twitching.

“I wanted to see you,” Sandaime says, taking a long drag from his ever-present pipe. “Twelve years is a long time, Obito.”

“Sure, fine. Here, we’re all grown up.” Obito gestures to him and Kakashi. “That all?”

“Forgive him, Hokage-sama,” Kakashi says, ignoring the glare Obito directs at him. “It’s good to see you.”

“You, as well, Kakashi.” Sandaime blows out a long stream of smoke. “Thank you for returning Team 7 to the village.”

“Not my idea,” Kakashi says with a shrug.

You dig your fingers deep into the earth as Sandaime’s attention shifts back to Obito. “And … what did you think of Sasuke?”

“Impressive,” Obito says, deadpan. “For a genin.” His eye shifts briefly to your location. “He’ll go far in life, if his desire for power doesn’t get him killed.”

The words hit like a blow and you bite the inside of your cheek to keep your anger in check. It isn’t just about power, surely Obito understands that...

Sandaime hums, contemplative. “And Naruto?”

Naruto sucks in a sharp breath beside you while, in the clearing, Obito laughs - a painful, battered sound. “What do you want me to say, old man? What could I…” he cuts himself off with a shake of his head. “He wants to be hokage, did you know that?”

You’re pretty sure the whole damn village knows that and from Sandaime’s amused smile, he does, too. “I’m aware, yes.”

“Then you know what I think,” Obito says and Naruto’s jaw clenches in frustration. Sakura puts a hand on his shoulder, fingers digging in - a warning and an anchor. “You don’t need me to say it.”

Sandaime nods and doesn’t press any further. “I’ll see to it that you receive no consequences for this.”

“Thank you,” Kakashi says. Obito just grunts.

Your stomach is somewhere in your throat and your brain is flurry of options, all crashing into each other. Do you stay put and let them walk away? Risk exposing yourself and see if you can make your case right here? What do you say? You want to go with them? Would that mean leaving Konoha? Do you care about leaving Konoha?

Naruto has none of your hesitation. Before you can stop him, he shouts “oi, jiisan!” and explodes out of the bushes like an orange and yellow firework.

Shit.

Nothing for it.

You get up and follow him out into the clearing. He’s already talking, at full volume, while Sandaime puffs serenely away on that stupid pipe. “You have to let them train us! We learned so much from Obito-san and he’s so much better than Ebisu-sensei was!”

“Naruto!” Sakura snaps, a note of mortification in her voice.

“He is!” Naruto insists. “Look what he taught me!” His hands fly through the seals for bunshin no jutsu and with a telltale puff of smoke, a perfect clone is standing next to him. Sandaime’s eyes widen just enough to be noticeable. “No one in the Academy could teach me that,” Naruto says, lowering his voice. He sounds like he did in the woods that night he woke you up: older, more serious, a stranger wearing Naruto’s skin. (Or is this the real Naruto? Underneath the underneath.) “They just told me I couldn’t do it.”

“Naruto,” Obito interjects. “We can’t teach you. We’re not jounin-”

“So make them jounin!” Naruto shouts, turning to the hokage again. “You can do that, right?”

“I’m afraid it’s more complicated than that, Naruto,” Sandaime says, though not without regret. “Kakashi and Obito were exiled from the village. They cannot return.”

“Then we’ll go with them.” The words leave your mouth almost by themselves and every head in the clearing turns to you in surprise.

You’re surprised by how much you mean them. How little, in this moment, Konoha means to you. Though, really, it didn’t start here. In the black remnants of your exploded heart, you know that the village ceased to matter the night Itachi tore your world to shreds. Since then, Konoha has always been a way to achieve your goals and nothing else. 

(How can you love a place that holds nothing but ghosts?)

“No,” Obito snaps, but Sandaime looks thoughtful.

“Would you go with them, Naruto?”

Naruto, who loves Konoha far more than you, hesitates. But only for a breath. “Yes.”

“Sakura?”

You’d almost forgot she was there, hovering just behind you. You expect her to decline - she has a family, she was terrified by what happened in Wave, she barely seems to want to be a kunoichi on a good day - but she lifts her chin in a rare display of defiance. “Yes. I’m not going to be left behind.”

Sandaime nods. “Then I would like a word with Obito and Kakashi. Wait here, please.”

Dog and Cat step forward to block your path as Kakashi, Obito, and the Third Hokage vanish further into the trees.

“Kuso,” Naruto mutters and starts pacing in an anxious circle.

You press your feet into the dirt and wait.

 

23.

Hear the crackling of leaves signaling Obito, Kakashi, and Sandaime’s return.

The sun is high in the sky now, hot against the back of your neck, even though the canopy, and the forest feels too still. Like the world around you is also holding its breath in anticipation.

“Obito and Kakashi have agreed to train you,” Sandaime announces through another cloud of smoke.

Naruto whoops, jumping nearly two feet in the air. Sandaime frowns at him. “Listen! This will not be an easy path for any of you. Life on the road is hard and unforgiving and you must leave your histories at the gates of Konoha. Beyond the village, you will not be shinobi of the Leaf. You will not be a jinchūriki. Or an Uchiha.”

He levels a firm stare at you and you nod your head, even though you don’t know how to be anything else.

(Perhaps that will change , an insidious voice whispers.)

“We sometimes lead a dangerous life,” Obito chimes in. “And we’ll expect you to be prepared.”

“We’ll train you,” Kakashi says. “But you have to give it your all.”

“Nothing less.”

“We will!” Naruto shouts, punching his fist forward. An excited grin consumes half his face.

“Yeah,” Sakura agrees, a little more timid.

“I want to talk to Obito,” you say. “Alone.”

Obito doesn’t look surprised, just nods his head towards the forest.

 

24.

Ask Obito why the change of heart and watch something close to sorrow bend his shoulders, darken the scars covering his face.

“Because the old man was right about some things,” he says, quiet. “About duty. And debts.”

“Debts?”

“Someone has to teach you how to use the Sharingan,” Obito says, which isn’t an answer.

“Do you care?” you ask him, making the words sharp. Anger is easier than the hurt inside you. Than the fear. “That they’re gone?”

“I care about what they left behind.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“You want to kill Itachi,” Obito says. “And it’s eating you alive.”

“It’s my duty,” you snap. Why can’t he understand? “It’s justice for our clan.”

(He wasn’t there, a part of you snarls in reminder. He didn’t see.)

“No,” Obito says, grim. “It’s revenge. And it won’t bring them back.”

It’s all I have, you don’t say, because you’re not sure if that’s true. (You’re not sure you want it to be, and that makes you weak, weak, weak…)

“I’ll train you,” Obito continues before you can find the right retaliation. “Because we’re Uchiha and you shouldn’t be alone. But don’t expect my support for this path you’ve set yourself on.”

“Fine.” You don’t care about his support (you don’t, you don’t), just what he can teach you.

“Fine,” Obito echoes. “Go pack.”

 

25.

Pack. Only the essentials: weapons, medical supplies, food. Set aside the clothing with your clan symbol in favor of plain black. Fold up your forehead protector and place it on your desk to be collected by the Hokage’s office.

 

26.

Leave everything else in the compound for the ghosts.

 

27.

Meet Sakura and Naruto at the gates, after the sun has set. Their faces bear the same fear and excitement currently tangling your insides into knots. You keep your own expression blank as you nod a greeting.

“Ready, Sasuke-kun?” Sakura asks.

You nod again. Stuff your hand in the pocket of your jacket to hide the tremble of your fingers.

“Come on!” Naruto shouts with his usual enthusiasm and bounds towards the forest.

 

28.

Follow Naruto through the gates and into the unknown.

Don’t look back.

 

29.

Learn several important things within a few months of traveling:

  • Eating Obito’s food invites at least a seventy-five percent risk of food poisoning.
  • Sakura in the early morning is sometimes more terrifying than a shinigami.
  • Naruto picks up techniques in the field much faster than he did at the Academy.
  • It’s annoying.
  • But it pushes you to step up, too.
  • Don’t look at any of Kakashi-sensei’s books unless you want to be scarred for life.
  • Trees are easy to fall out of when you sleep in them. Anchor yourself first.
  • With enough control, Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu can be used to ignite campfires.
  • Without enough control, results are disastrous.
  • Obito might surpass Naruto in the annoying department - especially during training when he laughs maniacally as all of your jutsu pass right through him.
  • Away from the village and the compound, you feel lighter. You think about Itachi less.
  • It’s worrying.
  • Kakashi and Obito are walking encyclopedias of shinobi lore, and decent storytellers. Nights around the campfire are for myths and legends and maps drawn in the dirt with sticks: the Sannin, each strong as a kage; the time of warring states, before the foundation of Konoha; the terrifying graduation tests of “The Bloody Mist” where students are forced to kill each other in combat…
  • They never talk about themselves, though. And they won’t answer when asked.
  • Sakura’s chakra control far surpasses yours or Naruto’s.
  • She is very smug about this.
  • You like her a lot better when she’s not fangirling over you.
  • Kakashi was probably a prodigy at some point. His knowledge seems endless and every time you train with him, he’s at least fifty steps ahead of you.
  • He also never takes off the cloth over his eye.
  • Naruto is capable of crying at the sight of a ramen stand.
  • And really good at talking other people into paying for him.
  • Especially Obito.
  • People outside hidden villages are often scared of shinobi, but Obito is usually the first one to win them over, with his laidback charisma and his willingness to take on even mundane tasks for very little pay.
  • He’s terrifying when he gets serious, though.
  • You, Sakura, and Naruto actually work well together when you start to communicate.
  • You might actually like your team.

 

30.

Six months in, have a simple escort mission go to absolute shit and get kidnapped, again, by a group of missing-nin excited at the prospect of obtaining a pair of Sharingan. How they found out, you don’t know, as your kekkei genkai isn’t something you advertise out here. Obito has a rule, about only using it when absolutely necessary, and these idiots weren’t enough of a challenge.

Your perception changes, slightly, when you realize they have also kidnapped a medic-nin and are going to force the man to surgically remove your eyes.

You freak out, then.

(But just a little.)

 

31.

Get rescued, for a second time, by a vengeful Obito and understand, for the first time, how much he’s been holding back from you. Not just regarding the village and the clan that he still refuses to talk about, but the true depth and scope of his power.

There are over twenty mercenaries in the compound, several of them high-level shinobi, and Obito decimates them with so much ease, he might as well be taking an afternoon stroll.

“Are you alright?” he asks you, as he cuts the straps binding you to the medical table. His face is spattered with blood and his lone dark eye is tight with worry and you’re furious. At him, at your own helplessness (still helpless, still need saving, still weak, weak, weak…), at the yawning divide between where you are and where you need to be.

“Could you kill Itachi?” you ask him as you pick your way through the dead.

“I don’t know,” Obito says, crouching to inspect one of the bodies. “Iwa, should have fucking guessed...”

You’re tired of his games and his lies - he dodges questions like he dodges attacks, lets them bleed right through him, and you’ve had enough. “You did all this with your Sharingan. How?”

He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does!” You shout. It echoes in the empty stillness of the compound.

Right now, it feels like it’s only you and him alive in the world. The last Uchiha, the ones left behind, drowning in the blood of the dead. “I need to get stronger, but you won’t teach me . You barely even let me use my Sharingan! What the hell are you afraid of?”

Obito sighs and stands, crossing his arms over his chest. “You don’t want this power, Sasuke.”

“I need it,” you argue, seething. “You know that! I have to-”

“Kill your brother?” Obito interjects. “To avenge something that’s gone forever?”

“He killed our parents!” you roar, trembling with the force of your anger now. You want to rip the blank look from Obito’s face. You want to sink your fingers into his skin and dig until you reach bone. “He murdered them! He murdered everyone! Because he wanted to, because he could. And he has to pay for that.

“Why didn’t he kill you?” Obito asks, still infuriatingly calm.

“He said I was too weak to kill,” you spit, hearing the words echo in your head. Hearing the blood drip from Itachi’s katana, staining the wood floors of your home. “He said I needed to get stronger, to hate him, and only then would I be worthy enough to fight. So why won’t you help me?

Instead of answering, Obito strides forward and latches on to your arm. As he leans in close, his eye shifts to the red-and-black of the Sharingan. You cringe, remembering Itachi’s eyes, the horrific visions that followed, but instead the air condenses around you and you feel yourself being pulled into a vortex.

 

32.

Crash to your knees on hard ground, gasping for breath.

“Stand up,” Obito says from beside you, harsh.

You struggle to your feet on shaking legs and take in your surroundings. A black expanse overhead, deeper than the sky at night, stretching as far as you can see; a series of grey pillars that seem to glow, each a different shape and size and height, with no discernible pattern; other things stored around you: giant shuriken, dozens of kunai, smoke bombs, scrolls, what looks like an extra travel pack, and several boxes of packaged food.

“W-what…?”

“This is the Kamui Dimension,” Obito says with a wave of his gloved hand. “My Sharingan connects to it.”

Once again, puzzle pieces crash together. “That’s how you phase through our attacks...”

“Bingo.” Obito picks up one of the kunai, flipping it over and over in his hand. He’s radiating an air of menace that unsettles you - not unlike the killing intent that surrounded him the first time you met.

You tamp down on your unease. “A regular Sharingan can’t do this.”

“No.” Obito agrees. The kunai pinwheels through the air again, before Obito snatches it with deft fingers. “This is the power of Mangekyō.”

The word seems like it should be familiar, but you can’t place it.

“Do you know what you have to do to obtain it?” Obito continues. “Do you know the cost?”

Mute, you shake your head.

Obito points the kunai at your chest. “You have to lose someone you love. You have to watch them die, feel their blood coat your hands and your heart shatter in your chest. Sometimes, you have to sink the blade in yourself. The grief and trauma of that loss is the only thing strong enough.”

He throws the kunai. You tense to dodge, but it lodges in the ground at your feet with a crack.

“You want this power, Sasuke?” Obito asks and the void around you seems to thicken, cutting shadows across his face. His eye is redder than blood.  “Slash Naruto’s throat tonight. Or Sakura’s. Kill me, even, if I matter enough to you. Can you do that?”

 

33.

Reach down to pick up the kunai. Feel the weight of it in your hand. Imagine sinking it into Naruto’s skin, the life leaving Sakura’s eyes. Imagine moving right now, to cut Obito’s throat open - blood all over the grey earth beneath your feet.

You should want it. To kill Itachi, you should be willing to sacrifice anything. Everything. It’s your fate, your destiny, the promise you made over the graves of your parents - you should want it.

(You’re shaking, down to your bones, to the core of you. Another fulcrum, a crossroads in a dark wood, and which path will you choose?)

“I can get power another way,” you say through gritted teeth.

Obito shakes his head. “It will still cost you. Power like this always does.”

“Then what else is there?”

Obito takes a step forward, and another. Wraps his hand around yours, the kunai trembling between you. The point is pressed against Obito’s stomach, digging into the cloth of his protective vest. “You can let go of this. You can let go of him.

Like it’s that simple.

“Did you even mourn?” You ask, pushing the kunai in a little further. Cloth rips.

Obito’s hand tightens on yours and his breath hitches. When you look up at his face, there is sorrow carved into it - almost as deep and wide as your own. “Of course I did,” he whispers. “They … they may not have meant as much to me, but I’m still an Uchiha, Sasuke. I mourned.” He laughs,  jagged. “I even thought about going after Itachi.”

That surprises you. “What stopped you?”

“Kakashi.” Rueful affection coats the word.

“Why?” Kakashi doesn’t seem the type for moral posturing.

“Because he knew what it would do to me. The stain it would leave.”

Something is cracking inside of you. Loud enough that you can hear it. You press the kunai in harder. Blood wells from beneath the cloth, but Obito doesn’t flinch. “He already ruined me. What does it matter?”

“No,” Obito says, firm. “He didn’t, Sasuke. He hasn’t.”

There is nothing but conviction in his voice. What does he see in you, you wonder, that he would believe so strongly in your future? In a future so vastly different than the one you’ve set for yourself?

“You’re still here,” Obito continues. “You’re alive. And you can heal.”

To your horror, tears are starting to well in your eyes, spilling over onto your cheeks.

“You can.” Obito squeezes your hand so hard it feels like his fingers touch bone. “You already are. But not if you continue down this path. You may kill Itachi, but you’ll lose everything in the process, Sasuke.”

You shouldn’t care. You should want it. You should slide the kunai between Obito’s ribs and shut him up, because you made a promise, you made a vow, and…

 

34.

Let the kunai slip through your numb fingers. Watch as it clatters to the ground - Obito’s blood gleaming on the tip. Feel sobs clawing up your throat and rattling noisy in your lungs. You haven’t cried since the night of the massacre, but you’re breaking now. You’re weak, just like Itachi said.

“No.” Obito kneels in front of you and you realize you spoke - that the voice made it out of your head, past your lips.

Obito’s gloved hands land on your shoulders and through the blur of your tears, you see a wet sheen reflected back at you from his still-red eye. “No, Sasuke,” he says, barely more than a whisper. “I promise, you’ll never be weak.”

 

35.

Crash forward into Obito’s embrace and weep - four years of grief and rage and heartbreak soaked into the shoulder of his vest.

He holds you through it, presses his chin to the top of your head.

(And you’re not alone.)

“I’ve got you. Let it out, kid. I’m here.”

(You’re not alone.)

 

36.

Come back to yourself minutes or hours later, feeling bruised and hollowed out. You’re still not sure if you want to thank Obito or punch him when he smiles and ruffles your hair. You’re still not sure which path you took, or if you’ve truly decided at all.

But you don’t want to think about any of that right now.

And you’re interrupted from trying to figure out what to say by Kakashi materializing on one of the nearby pillars.

“Yo,” he says with a casual wave.

Oh, you think, staring at his uncovered, red-and-black eye, that explains a lot.

“Sorry to interrupt, but the other brats are getting worried. Everything okay?”

“We’re fine,” Obito says. Kakashi’s gaze darts to the bloodied kunai and the hole in Obito’s vest, but he nods.

“Maa, all right, then. See you.”

And with another wave, he’s gone.

“You gave him one of your Sharingan?” you ask, voice a raspy croak.

Obito rubs the back of his head. “Well, I kind of thought I was dying at the time.” At your flabbergasted look, he shrugs. “Kakashi needed an eye and it seemed like a good idea.”

“Do you regret it?”

He stands and reaches down to pull you to your feet. “Not for a second.”

You try to take this in. “Why … why did you leave the village?”

He sighs, but this time, he’s going to tell you. You can see it on his face.

“Not here,” he says. “All three of you should hear it. I’m only telling it once.”

You suppose you can accept that. This place is creepy, too, so you let him take your hand again and pull you through into the real world once more.

To your surprise, you’re not at the compound, but on the outskirts of a familiar camp. Naruto and Sakura look up from their spots by the fire and you watch, with slight amazement, as their expressions cycle through shock, disbelief, relief, and then finally joy in the span of thirty seconds.

“Oi, Sasuke-teme!” Naruto says, surging to his feet. You brace yourself as he rushes over to you and punches you in the shoulder, hard enough to knock you back a step. Then he hugs you. “Don’t do that again.”

“Yeah,” Sakura agrees, stalking over to try to fit her arms around both of you at once. “We were worried, you bastard.”

She’s never called you that before, but it makes you smile.

“I won’t,” you say, and think you might mean it.

 

37.

Hear the story over the next several days, as you travel out of The Land of Earth and into Grass.

Obito tells most of it, around campfires and along dusty roads, and when his voice cracks too much and his hands start to shake, Kakashi takes over.

There was a war, which you remember from your history textbooks, and it lasted for years. Decades. Kakashi and Obito grew up under the shadow of it, too fast and already stained by death. And during the war there was a bridge, and a kunoichi, and a failed mission.

(“We were stupid,” Obito says, touching the cloth over his eye. “And we paid for it.”)

Kakashi returned to Konoha with a fresh tear in his already tattered world and Obito survived, against all the odds.

A man saved him, who claimed to be an Uchiha - a legend brought back to life, or maybe never dead. Healed him, with cells from another long-lost legend (and you gape in open astonishment when wood sprouts from Obito’s palm), and tried to convert him to his cause.

(“He wanted to save the world,” Obito says, rubbing the pale, unnatural skin of his right arm. “By destroying it.”)

Meanwhile, in the world beyond, the war raged and people died, including the kunoichi.

(“She stepped in front of Chidori,” Kakashi says, fingers twitching into a fist, “to stop herself from harming the village.)

They gloss over the aftermath of her death, but you can see the hole in each of them now, running right through their center, never completely closed.

It almost matches yours.

After her, there was a bijuu and a night of madness, and the sacrifice of a hokage.

(“He used me,” Obito whispers to the fire, sounding almost young. “To summon it. My body … I wasn’t. I wasn’t in control, but it’s my fault. I … I killed…” Naruto reaches over and places a hand on top of his as the words die in his throat.)

From Kakashi, there was a betrayal. A murdered squad of ANBU to save his last precious person. And then there was a scheduled execution, stopped by a former hokage unexpectedly made hokage again.

(“Exile instead,” Kakashi says, rubbing his upper arm where you think his ANBU tattoo used to be. “Under the guise of escape. We were labeled missing-nin with flee-on-sight orders.”

“We were fourteen,” Obito murmurs.

Kakashi shakes his head. “We hadn’t been children for a long time.”)

It’s a tragedy - or it would be, if it were finished. But they are here, walking in front of you, nearly close to whole.

You’re beginning to understand.

 

38.

Let go. Slowly, carefully, one step at a time. Ask Sakura to help you with chakra control. Offer to pay for Naruto’s ramen (“...but just this once. Don’t get used to it, dobe.”). Roll your eyes at Obito and Kakashi’s bickering, but don’t fight the affectionate smile in the corner of your mouth.

They’re patient with you, your team. Naruto grins in the face of your anger and Sakura tells you to grow up - neither of them fazed by your half-hearted attempts to push them away.

Kakashi sits up at night, reading new scrolls because Sakura has expressed an interest in fūinjutsu, while Obito continues his demented training sessions - often making the three of you chase him through the forest at ungodly hours in the morning, whacking you on the head with sticks and being, in general, the most annoying person to walk the earth.

(But Kakashi's promised to teach you Chidori, so you tolerate Obito's antics. Plus you’re getting really good at dodging, even though you have yet to land a solid hit on him.)

You learn water jutsu to help irrigate fields recovering from a plague; help repair houses and roads in small, rural villages; conduct numerous escort missions up and and down the continent, from caravans carrying supplies to a traveling circus afraid of bandits; rescue a daimyo's kidnapped son; spar with Naruto in your time off and feel the sting lessen when he occasionally beats you; let Sakura test new seals on you and wave off her apologies when one of them accidentally blocks your chakra for a full day.

It’s a life - chaotic, unexpected, but yours.

 

39.

Think of Itachi less and less. Feel the hole in the center of you scarring over and resist the urge to rip it open again.

 

40.

Buy flowers on the anniversary of the massacre - peonies, your mother’s favorite. You don’t have a grave to lay them on anymore so you take them to the nearby river instead.

(You’re close to the border of Rice and Hot Springs right now and there is water everywhere.)

Obito joins you on the marshy banks and follows you into the shallows. The current is fast, but not unbearable, pushing insistently against your legs.

(Forward, it seems to say, and you think your mother would agree.)

“I miss them." You're brave enough to say it out loud now. 

“I know,” Obito says, with a gentleness that no longer scares you.

“I think I always will.” But you’re okay with that - with the scarring, the phantom pain.

Obito squeezes your shoulder.

You drop the peonies in the water and watch the river carry them away, towards some distant sea.

 

41.

Wake up at the crack of dawn, one year and two months after leaving Konoha. The last mission was a rough one (who the hell invented slime jutsu?), so Kakashi and Obito decided to splurge on rooms at a nearby inn.

You’re somewhere in The Land of Rivers, looking for Jiraiya, who is apparently the only one able to teach Naruto a technique called Rasengan.

Which Naruto hasn’t shut up about in almost a week.

He’s leaning over you now, poking you in the shoulder. “Ano, get up, Sasuke-teme!”

You bat at his face. “Shut up, dobe.”

From across the room, Sakura throws a pillow, nailing Naruto in the head. “Shut up, both of you.

Undeterred, Naruto leans closer and whispers, “Obito-sensei said we’re leaving in fifteen minutes. Get Sakura-chan up, okay?”

And then he’s gone, the traitor, leaving you to haul yourself out of bed and deal with Sakura’s early morning wrath. Fortunately, she still tolerates you a little more than Naruto and you get off with only a slightly bruised shoulder.

Kakashi and Obito are already fully dressed and waiting outside. They look half-asleep, but you’ve stopped being fooled by that.

“Why are we leaving so early?” Sakura mutters, shoving her messy hair off her forehead (it’s almost shorter than yours now - after you helped her cut it several months ago). “Can’t we stay another day? You said Jiraiya-sama should be in Tani for at least a week, right?”

“Please stop calling him that,” Obito grumbles.

Sakura frowns. “He’s one of the Legendary Sannin…”

“Somehow.” Obito mutters and glances at Kakashi. “And wipe that look off your face, Bakakashi. You’re too excited about this.”

Kakashi waves a placating hand. “Maa, Obito, it’s just that he’s been working on the next Icha Icha book for the last two years so I thought-”

“No,” Obito huffs, eye twitching. “We are going for Rasengan and that is it. And one of these days, I’m going to burn those shit books, Kakashi, I swear.”

“You’ve been saying that for the last decade,” Kakashi points out serenely.

Obito’s eye twitches with more fury. You hid your smile behind a cough and Naruto slings an arm around your shoulders.

“Hey, Sasuke, once I learn Rasengan we’re going to crush the competition at the chūnin exams, ne?” His grin turns crooked and smug, a little red creeping into the blue of his eyes.

You mirror his smirk. “Completely.”

“Can you two look a little less evil when you say that?” Obito asks, though without much conviction. (He mostly looks proud.)

“Besides,” Kakashi adds. “We’ve never trained anyone before. We could have been teaching you crap for the last year.”

Sakura grins and hits her fist against a nearby tree. The bark cracks, courtesy of the advanced chakra control Kakashi’s been teaching her. “I doubt that, sensei.”

“Fine, fine,” Kakashi concedes. “Just don’t go overboard.”

“Who?” Naruto asks with an innocent grin. “Us?”

Obito shakes his head. “Alright, brats, let’s go find Ero-Sennin.”

“Why do you call him that?” Sakura asks as all of you run your usual spot check on your bags. (A new routine after Naruto managed to forget a whole pouch of explosives at an inn.)

“You’ll see,” Obito mutters darkly, adjusting his pack over his shoulders.

 

42.

Leave the inn behind as the sun starts to rise over the forest, bathing the canopy in gold. Breathe in deep, letting the chill air move sharp through your lungs.

In a few minutes, you know Naruto will challenge you and Sakura to a race, but for now the stillness of the morning invites a peace you didn’t think you’d know again.

It comes only in flashes - your tears and wounds are still healing - but one day, you think you’ll be able to grasp it and hold on. Let it settle in your chest.

For now, you are alive.

(And not alone.)

And that is enough.